The return of the Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival, exhibiting work by and featuring disabled artists for the public along with an industry strand for the creatives themselves, is an important occasion. Delivered via a hybrid of live performance and online events, some of the in-person events were once again looking threatened with cancellations due to the new extraordinary external circumstances of last week – plus various shows intended for outdoor performance had to move indoors due to the weather. These troupers were asked to adapt – and did – so they could practice their craft and express themselves before the audience. It seemed a statement in its own right that the accommodations were made by the disabled performers rather than for them. The show went on.
Leave the Lights is billed as a story about ‘climate change from the perspective of disabled and autistic artists’. Brief (at under 40 minutes), visually colourful, high energy and satisfyingly whacky, the show has surrealistic elements that feel almost balletic and clownish – in a good way. Aspects of the production are cryptic and a little chaotic and I found those rather pleasing. There is something both goofy and dystopian in the telling of how we find ourselves having to debate our own extinction. Indeed, the bizarreness of a discourse that prioritises the survival of humanity and the planet being treated as ‘controversial’ is highlighted and urgently lampooned by both bonkers and sinister game-playing that serves as the performance’s central device. There were elements that felt like Teletubbies meets A Clockwork Orange – with a catchy song-and-dance number at the end. I attended with my 10-year-old daughter and this show is definitely family-friendly. Unfortunately, my 10-year-old son, who lives with autism, couldn’t attend that day due to illness. It was a double shame because I had been keen to see how he would connect with the story. For him, representation by disabled and autistic artists is hugely important. Likewise, I feel criticism by disabled and autistic reviewers of the work is equally important. In his absence, however, I suspect, like his neuro-typical twin sister did, that he would enjoy the show’s energy and sensation but that his attention also might also wander during the more didactic moments of the show (as mine did too.)
I loved the performance’s costumes, soundscape and playfulness but there were other elements that frustrated me. Perhaps my expectations had been raised by the billing of a show about climate change from the perspective of disabled and autistic artists. The climate emergency is affecting certain communities more immediately than others and, from the description, I had been hoping to gain perspective from disabled and autistic people of its impact on their communities specifically. But perhaps that’s a point in its own right: that extinction is extinction is extinction. I also did have a little niggle that, after the wild surreal ride of the show’s opening, it somewhat descended into a public service announcement that, perversely, lets some of the worst malefactors of the crisis off the hook by overplaying individual rather than collective and systemic action. The urge, creatively, to tie a story up with a neat bow is a hard one to resist but the fury, humour and directness of the performers is powerful – just the sort of power on which our survival depends.
Review by Mary Beer